When the United States Supreme Court invalidated sections of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on June 26, 2013, the Court upheld that the State has the right to declare what constitutes a marriage.
Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority wrote that when the state grants individuals the right to marry, the state is dealing with an important human right and is recognizing the dignity of individuals to enter a legal lawful status: “This status is a far-reaching legal acknowledgment of the intimate relationship between two people, a relationship deemed by the State worthy of dignity in the community equal with all other marriages.”
Applying the principles outlined in the United States v. Windsor, several Federal courts have invalidated state laws restricting same-sex marriages by declaring them to be unconstitutional. Now, a Federal court has gone one step further. A Federal Court in Utah has invalidated a polygamy law by declaring the law to be unconstitutional since it violates the family’s freedom of religion:
Below is an excerpt of a news report dealing with the Court’s decision:
A federal judge has struck down part of Utah’s anti-polygamy law, following a lawsuit brought by the family featured in the reality TV show “Sister Wives.”
The ruling effectively decriminalizes polygamy in the state, while maintaining bigamy as an offense.
U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups’ ruling follows a similar order that he handed down last year. The final ruling on that case was delayed due to procedural matters.
The ruling strikes down a provision of Utah’s anti-bigamy statute, that can be applied when someone “cohabits with another person” to whom they are not legally married. Utah law made such a union a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
The judge found that the statute violated the family’s freedom of religion.
I am not an expert on constitutional law, but I do not believe that the Constitution grants judges and the courts the power to decriminalize polygamy. One may defend polygamy by citing examples from the Bible, but such a defense stands on weak grounds.
It is true that polygamy was widely practiced in the Ancient Near East, including Israel. Several individuals in the Old Testament lived in a polygamous household. The biblical writers do not openly condemn polygamy, but the way they present the problems of polygamous families may reflect their disapproval of polygamy.
Abraham came from a polygamous society, but he only acquired a second wife at the insistence of Sarah because of her barrenness. Abraham did not marry again until after Sarah died.
Jacob entered into a polygamous relationship because of the deceit of his father-in-law. When Jacob left the house of his father, Isaac told him: “Go at once to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father; and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother” (Genesis 28:2). Jacob’s intent was to marry “one of the daughters of Laban.” His intent was to have only one wife, but in the end he was forced to have four.
Most of the people who were in a polygamous relationship in the Old Testament were rich people, people in government, and people in positions of power. Polygamy was a status symbol, one way to show one’s wealth, power, and prestige.
When it comes to marriage, the Old Testament presents monogamy as the ideal for society. When talking about a happy marriage, the psalmist talks about “your wife” (Psalm 128:3). The wise man talks about “the wife of your youth” (Proverbs 5:18). There is no mention of wives, as if many wives were the norm in Israelite society. Whenever there was a violation of a monogamous marriage, it was always because of adultery.
Polygamy existed in Israelite society until the time before the exile. After Israel returned from their exile in Babylon there is no reference to polygamy in the Old Testament. Polygamy did not cease to exist in many societies during the New Testament times. According to Josephus, Herod the Great had nine wives.
Jesus does not mention polygamy in any of the gospels, probably because polygamy was rare in Israel during his days. Whenever a married man in presented in the gospels, he is said to have only one wife.
One situation in Jesus’ ministry comes close to defining his view on marriage. When the Pharisees asked Jesus “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19:3).
Jesus replied: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:5-6).
By saying that a man joins his wife, Jesus was presenting God’s original intent for marriage. Jesus’ words condemn polygamy and affirm that marriage is between a man and a woman. The principle of “one flesh” is God’s ideal for marriage. Polygamy existed in antiquity, but it was never God’s ideal for his creation.
When the Pharisees also asked about divorce, Jesus said: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8 NIV).
The expression “because your hearts were hard” is what Christians call sin. Because of sin, people violate God’s original intent for his creation. The early Christians had to deal with the problem of polygamy since many of the people who came to faith were not Jews. Roman and Greek citizens who came to faith in Christ brought into the church some of the practices that were foreign to the teachings of the gospel. However, there is no evidence that the early church baptized people who were living in polygamous marriages.
When it comes to marriage, 1 Corinthians 7:2 reflects the teaching of the early church: “Let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.”
God’s intention for his creation is that a man should join with one woman, thus beginning a family. If God intended for the man to have more than one wife, then he would had given Adam multiple wives so that he and his many wives could populate the earth. Or he would had provided multiple wives for Noah and his sons so that they could repopulate the empty land after the flood.
But polygamy was never God’s intent for the marriage relationship. There were few polygamous marriages in the Old Testament and none of those marriages can serve as an example of a happy marriage.
It is tragic that one judge can decriminalize polygamy and declare that polygamous marriages are acceptable in our society today. His decision is clear evidence of how our society has departed from the moral and spiritual values that have been the foundation of Western civilization.
His decision also represents a sad reality: that in the secular society in which we live, the church has lost it moral voice to speak with authority about the principles established by God for his creation.
But, how can the church proclaim a message of transformation when society rejects the basis for the church’s authority? And how can the church present God’s intent for his creation when some of those who represent God are on the other side?
In his poem “Paradise Lost,” the English poet John Milton almost made Satan to be the hero of the poem. This was the reason William Blake, another English poet, criticized Milton by saying that “Milton was of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.”
It is possible that many people who are destroying the moral foundations of our society may have good intentions. However, they are on the other side of the issue “without knowing it.”
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
NOTE: Did you like this post? Be sure to click the “Like” button and then share this post on Facebook, and tweet it on Twitter! I would love to hear from you! Let me know what you thought of this post by leaving a comment below. Be sure to like my page on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, and subscribe to my blog to receive each post by email.